“You ready, peanut?” I scooped Jonah up from the changing table and set him on my hip. “We need to find Daddy and Frankie and get a move on. Where do you think they are, huh?”
“Dah!” my nine-month-old said happily. He’d just begun using an actual word here and there, although to hear Tyler tell it, both our kids were linguistic geniuses speaking in full sentences already.
“Where is Dah?” I asked, slinging the diaper bag over my shoulder and flipping the light off in the nursery. “Is he outside with your big sister? Are they playing catch again?”
I went down the steps carefully, balancing Jonah’s weight on one side with the heft of the diaper bag on the other. It was only an overnight road trip to Grand Rapids, but traveling with two kids under age four meant we had to take a lot with us.
“Yep. There they are,” I said, reaching the bottom of the stairs. A glance out the window confirmed what I’d suspected before—Tyler had our three-year-old daughter Frankie out on the front lawn again, where he was teaching her how to catch and throw a foam ball.
My car, a family-friendly minivan, was parked in the driveway with the hatch open. I went out the front door and pulled it shut behind me. “Are we all set?”
“Just waiting for you,” Tyler called, tossing the ball in a gentle arc. “Car is all packed. Atta girl, Frankie. Good catch!”
“I’m ready,” I said, enjoying the way our little dark-haired girl lit up when her daddy smiled at her. It never failed to make my heart flutter with happiness when I watched Tyler with the kids. He was such an amazing father. “And we’d better hurry up or we’ll be late for Chip’s game.”
“We’re not gonna miss the game.” Tyler looked at Frankie. “Okay, honey, one more throw. Can you do it? Right to Daddy.”
Frankie threw the ball back to Tyler and he cheered. “Yay! Great job!”
“Can I bat, Daddy?”
“Not today, sweet pea. We have to go see Chip.” He walked over and picked her up, giving her a kiss on the forehead before setting her on his hip. “We’ll practice more with the tee when we get back.”
“Is Chip going to strike anybody out?”
“Yes!” she said, clapping her hands.
“And what will we say?”
Frankie hollered at the top of her lungs, and I laughed.
Second only to watching Tyler with the kids on the list of Things That Melt My Heart was seeing Chip interact with them. He’d been a sophomore at Clemson when Frankie was born, but he visited us every time he came home during summers and holiday vacations, and we FaceTimed often. He was so sweet and patient with Frankie, maybe because he’d been such a great big brother to Cecily, who was now fifteen and three quarters, and excited about getting her driver’s license. She was also one of Frankie’s favorite babysitters.
Chip had graduated from Clemson last year, and he’d had such a fantastic college baseball career that he’d been drafted by Tampa Bay. He’d spent this year playing what Tyler called “rookie ball” with a team called the Bowling Green Hot Rods. Tonight they’d play an away game against a Michigan team, and we couldn’t wait to see him pitch.
We buckled the kids into their carseats, double checked that we had everything packed that we’d need, got to the end of the block, realized we’d forgotten the stroller, went back for it, and finally got on the road only a few minutes later than planned.
“See?” Tyler reached over and patted my leg. “Nothing to worry about, babe. We got this.”
The ride was only a few hours, and luckily, both our children slept through the whole thing. They always fell asleep so easily in the car. When they were newborns, Tyler used to take them for a drive in the middle of the night just so I could get a couple hours of sleep.
I glanced over my shoulder at them, smiling at Jonah’s chubby cheeks and sparse tufts of ginger hair, Frankie’s lopsided pigtails and the smudge of dirt on her face. She was Daddy’s girl through and through, from her deep brown eyes to her long legs and her love for playing catch. The only thing my daughter had gotten from me was a dimple on one side of her smile. Our little boy, on the other hand, was all Sawyer. He looked just like baby pictures of my dad.
“Did you ever think this would be your life?” I asked Tyler. “Driving a minivan, a wife and kids, a double stroller, changing diapers, burping a baby in the middle of the night . . .”
“Uh, no.” He took my hand and kissed the back of it. “But I wouldn’t change a single thing.”
* * *
After the game, we briefly met up with Chip and congratulated him on an amazing win. Both kids were asleep again, Jonah in the stroller and Frankie chest-to-chest with Tyler, her head on his shoulder, her legs hanging limp.
Chip laughed. “She’s getting so big. I can’t believe how much she’s grown.”
“The pediatrician says she’s going to be tall,” I said. “Not as tall as her dad, of course, but definitely taller than her mom.”
“Well, who isn’t?” Chip teased. He leaned over to peek at Jonah in the stroller. “Hey, little man. Whoa, you’re getting big too.”
“They grow fast,” Tyler said. “Pretty soon we’ll be watching their games.”
Chip straightened to his full height. “That’s so crazy.”
“Great game today,” I told him.
“Thanks,” he said, giving me a grin that looked an awful lot like Tyler’s back in the day.
“The motion is looking smooth,” said Tyler. “How’s the arm holding up?”
“Pretty good.” Chip shrugged. “I might actually be going up to double A in a few weeks.”
“That’s awesome,” Tyler said. “Make sure you’re resting it enough.”
“So how’s life outside baseball?” I asked.
“Life outside baseball, what’s that?” Chip grinned again.
I sighed. “I don’t even know why I ask. One of these times, I guess I’m hoping you’ll say there’s a girl.”
“Actually, there might be a girl.”
“Really?” I asked, perking up.
“Yeah. But she lives in Louisville and I’m probably going to Alabama at some point so . . .” He shrugged. “It’s kinda hard.”
Jonah woke up and started to fuss. “I should get him back to the hotel so I can feed him,” I said apologetically. “But you’re good for breakfast tomorrow? I want to hear more about the girl.”
He nodded. “Definitely. Can’t wait to see these guys awake.”
Smiling, I rose up on tiptoe and gave him a huge hug. It never failed to amaze me that he was part of my life now. I wasn’t the one he called Mom, but we were special to each other, and we’d always have a unique bond. “Get some sleep. See you in the morning.”
Tyler said goodnight and we headed for the car, me pushing the stroller and Frankie still draped over his chest.
“He looks good, doesn’t he?” I said softly to Tyler as we walked toward the parking lot.
“Yeah. He’s really worked on that knuckle curve. His slider too.”
I sighed. “I didn’t mean his pitching, but yes—he looks amazing on the mound. So strong and confident.”
“Yeah.” He was silent for a minute. “He called me a couple months ago because he was struggling with his confidence. Wanted some advice.”
“Whatever you told him must have helped,” I said as we approached our minivan. “He said they’re going to bump him up.”
“I just reminded him to trust himself, and when that gets tough, go back to the mechanics. It’s about the process, not the result.” He chuckled as he pulled his keys from his pocket and opened the doors. “All the same stuff Virgil used to say to me.”
I smiled sympathetically at him—Virgil had passed away right after our wedding, and I knew Tyler still missed him. “He’d be happy you’re passing it on.”
We drove back to the hotel and trooped up to our room. While I managed to get Jonah fed, changed, and into the hotel-provided crib, Tyler dealt with a crabby little girl who didn’t want the princess pajamas I’d packed—“I want the pirates”—and refused to brush her teeth.
“Come on, Cranky Frankie,” he said, getting down on his knees with her toothbrush in his hand. “I’ll do it for you. All you have to do is open your mouth.”
She eventually let him do it and was practically asleep on her feet by the time he finished. He carried her over to one of two queen beds in the room, where I’d already stuck foam bumpers beneath the sheets to prevent her from rolling off.
Eventually, both kids were down, the room was quiet, and the two of us slipped under the covers of the empty bed. “Think I should leave the bathroom light on in case Frankie wakes up confused?” I whispered.
“Yeah. I’ll get it.” Tyler got out of bed, and a moment later the bathroom light snapped on. He shut the door partway so it wouldn’t be so bright that it kept us awake, and returned to bed.
I cuddled up next to him, resting my head on his bare chest. “Boy, staying in a hotel these days sure is different from how it used to be, huh?”
He laughed a little. “Yeah. We used to make a lot more noise.”
“Definitely.” I picked up my head and kissed his scruffy jaw. “But like you said earlier, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“Me neither.” He pressed his lips to mine. “But you just gave me an idea.”
“Think your parents would take the kids one night next weekend?”
“Of course. They’re always begging for them.”
“Perfect. I’ll get us a hotel room and we can pretend like it’s the old days—order room service, have lots of sex, make all the noise we want.”
I giggled. “That sounds amazing. But you know what’s going to happen the minute you and I hit the sheets in our nice quiet hotel room.”
“We’ll fall asleep.”
He sighed. “Are we that old?”
“We’re forty. That’s not that old.”
“But we’re too tired to even imagine having hypothetical sex in our hypothetical hotel room next weekend. That’s lame.”
I laughed. “Tell you what. Let’s promise each other we will stay up long enough to at least have sex one time in our hotel room. I bet once we get going, we won’t be able to stop. It’ll be like the return of ‘The Rifle.’”
“It’s a deal.”
“But bring the condoms. The rifle has a tendency to knock me up.”
“You don’t want any more kids?”
I picked my head up. “Do you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I love being a dad. Our family is my favorite thing in the world. Why wouldn’t I want to add to it?”
My throat grew tight. “You’re going to make me cry.”
He reached up and brushed my hair back from my face. “I guess I should tell you those things more often. I always think it’s so obvious how I feel that I don’t think to say the words out loud.”
“It’s okay.” He showed me every single day what I meant to him—I wasn’t hung up on words.
“But you know how much I love you, right?”
“And you know that there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“And everything that I went through—all of it—I’d go through it a thousand times more if it brought me to you.”
“It would, every time.” I kissed his hand, the one that threw a hundred mile per hour fastball, the one he’d slipped into my hair late one July night, the one on which he now wore his wedding band. “This was always meant to be.”